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Milford planning battle: 'affordable homes' would need £56,000 salary

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New Forest District Council (left) and Pennyfarthing Homes face off at Lymington Town Hall
New Forest District Council (left) and Pennyfarthing Homes face off at Lymington Town Hall

PEOPLE trying to get on the property ladder would need an income of at least £56,000 to buy an “affordable” starter home, a developer has admitted at a public inquiry into its plans to build 42 properties on former green belt land in Milford.

The scheme, which has been the subject of a three-day planning inquiry, hinges on whether Pennyfarthing Homes should be allowed to develop land north of School Lane with market housing against an earlier planning directive for no more than 30 units and that 70% should be affordable to meet local housing needs.

Pennyfarthing claims its plans to build seven two-bedroom starter homes, which will be marketed at £250,000, should count towards its obligations to provide affordable housing on the former greenbelt site.

It will also develop four one-bedroom affordable flats for rent, two two-bedroom affordable homes and six three-bedroom shared ownership schemes, alongside 21 three and four-bedroom houses for the open market.

Speaking at the planning inquiry at Lymington Town Hall, Pennyfarthing’s affordable housing expert witness James Stacey confirmed households would need an income of between £57,000 and £80,000 a year to obtain one of the two-bedroom “starter homes”.

Responding to questions from New Forest District Council’s barrister Paul Brown QC, Mr Stacey conceded that Pennyfarthing’s plans to build seven starter homes would do “very little” to help the 56 households with local links currently on the waiting list for a socially rented home.

However, he told the hearing that an earlier 2014 ruling, that the green belt should only be developed with a 70% affordable housing scheme, was unrealistic given that even in Oxfordshire, where social housing was in desperately short supply, the local authority was only achieving a rate of 50% affordable housing on similar developments.

The amount of affordable housing which can be developed on the farmland site in Milford, known as MOS1, which Pennyfarthing has an option to buy from Edgars Dairies, has been at the centre of the three-day inquiry following the district council’s refusal of planning permission in July 2018.

As well as 42 new homes Pennyfarthing is also seeking permission for associated garages, estate roads, parking, a school drop-off site, cycle paths, allotments, a play area and public open space.

Milford villagers last year protesting for more affordable homes at the School Lane site
Milford villagers last year protesting for more affordable homes at the School Lane site

Its appeal will be decided by government planning inspector Alex Hutson who told the inquiry: “The main issue as I see it is whether the proposal will provide a suitable mix and level of affordable housing.”

Opponents of the scheme, which include campaign group SLAM made up of around 230 residents and Milford Parish Council, say that when the land was declassified as green belt five years ago it was done so on an “exception” site basis meaning it should only be developed with 30 homes of which 70% should be affordable and the remainder were to be “low cost starter homes”.

However, Pennyfarthing’s barrister Gary Grant claimed the policies which saw the site taken out of the green belt were out of date, and the district council had failed to include starter homes in its affordable housing calculations, despite national planning policy changes in 2018 which now recognised them as a form of affordable housing.

Mr Grant said that despite refusing planning permission, the district council had been unable to produce any evidence that the site could realistically be developed with a combination of affordable and low-cost market housing. Therefore the policy target set out in 2014 could not be met, he argued.

Mr Grant continued: “The proposal contains a number of starter homes. Such homes are a form of affordable housing and policy which adopts a different definition is out of date and has been suspended by national policy. No weight can be attached to such an approach.”

Mr Grant added the proposed development also had a number of “community benefits”, such as public open space, allotments, and a dual-use parking area for use by the adjacent primary school.

Pennyfarthing Homes' team at the appeal at Lymington Town Hall
Pennyfarthing Homes' team at the appeal at Lymington Town Hall

Defending the district council’s refusal, Mr Brown said until 2014 the land was in the green belt and outside the settlement boundary of Milford.

He continued: “The part of the site which is now proposed for housing was released from that designation and included within the settlement boundary for a specific reason – in order to meet an identified local need for affordable housing.”

Mr Brown said that when the site was reclassified it was on the basis that at least 70% of the homes should be affordable – and this principal was upheld by a government planning inspector despite several representations that it should be relaxed.

The inquiry heard that after refusing planning permission for the application last July, NFDC had sought independent advice on the level of affordable housing which could be delivered on the site.

Mr Brown said the advice was that “whilst the appeal proposal could not sustain the full 70% sought by the policies, it could viably support significantly more than the 29% affordable housing and the 17% starter homes” proposed in the current plans.

He concluded: “In short, if this scheme can viably support more affordable housing, there is simply no good reason why it should not do so, and this appeal should be dismissed.”

The inquiry also heard from parish councillor Sue Whitlock who recalled they had been focused on finding suitable sites to build affordable housing for at least 16 years.

She said: “MOS1 was a piece of land within the green belt. The village took it on the chin that the precious green belt land was to be sacrificed on the altar of local needs and it conceded that it could live with these 30 homes because, we understood, these homes would be affordable – in our opinion built on an exception site.

“It is ironic that Pennyfarthing was supportive of the council’s allocation of the site through policy MOS1. They made representations in support of the policy.”

Cllr Whitlock said the policy of building a maximum of 30 homes of which at least 70% were affordable was subsequently ratified and endorsed by a planning inspector.

She continued: “Perhaps we should have realised that in order to justify the building of market housing the land had to be redesignated and been aware that as it was no longer green belt it had become a sitting target for any planning application. But we trusted the inspector’s directive.”

“We may have been deceived”, said Cllr Whitlock. “If an inspector’s ruling can be swept aside by a profit-motivated developer’s cynical disregard for that ruling, then what is the point of an inspector?”

The inquiry also heard a statement from planning consultant James Cain who was employed by SLAM following a £3,000 crowdfunding campaign.

He warned that if the appeal was allowed the local community would be “completely disillusioned by the whole planning process”, because the site had only been removed from the green belt in order to provide affordable housing.

He added that the community also felt “bullied” by certain practices by Pennyfarthing, including the removal of a significant section of hedgerow along the southern boundary of the site.

The inquiry also heard an impassioned plea from former Hampshire county councillor Patricia Banks who said: “It may be cheeky for me to say so but I really don’t see why people who cannot afford expensive houses should not able to live on a very beautiful site with a very beautiful view.

“We as villagers believe this is an ideal site for the absolute maximum amount of social housing you can get on it whether you want to call it starter homes or shared ownership to my way of thinking this is a very suitable site for balancing the community of Milford-on-Sea.

“We are privileged, we are a fairly affluent community but we do lack the opportunity for ordinary families as well as very special families who need special help.”

The inspector was due to have conducted a site visit on Thursday and will announce his decision later.

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